In a new report issued by government law experts, a complex framework has been set out for when self-driving cars infiltrate Britain’s roads in the next few years. The report states that drivers will no longer be referred to as such, and will instead be named ‘user-in-charge’ in this shift of responsibilities.
It is understood that, under this new proposal, the person in the driving seat would not be held accountable for mistakes made by the car, like speeding.
Instead, these responsibilities would be transferred to the manufacturer of the vehicle or its software.
It seems that these self-driving cars would be programmed to make a journey with passengers onboard (who may only need to intervene in an emergency. This would mean that fining systems like speeding tickets would become redundant, with ‘users-in-charge’ no longer liable for the mistakes made by the vehicle itself.
The Law Commission Report states that these changes will allow ‘users-in-charge’ to relax on car journeys by reading a book or watching a film, with potential for the traditional driver’s seat to be made redundant and phased out in newer self-driving models.
The report states that: ‘Under our proposals, if a vehicle is classified as self-driving and the ADS (automated driving system) is engaged, the person in the driving seat becomes as ‘user-in-charge’ rather than a driver.’
It continues with an explanation of what this could mean for the future of driving and offences like speeding: ‘This means that…the user-in-charge could lawfully undertake activities which drivers of conventional vehicles are not allowed to do as it would distract them from driving. Examples are watching a movie or reading emails. If there is a collision caused by a vehicle driving itself…the user-in-charge could not be prosecuted for offences such as careless or dangerous driving. The user-in-charge could not be prosecuted for a wide range of other offences, including exceeding the speed limit.’
The report does state, however, that ‘users-in-charge’ would have to stay under the drink-drive limit in case of an emergency in which they would be required to take back control of the vehicle.
Is this shift in responsibility a good idea?
Even at this early stage, there are concerns about the rolling out of these automated vehicles, and the report has faced opposition from the public: ‘Eventually, someone will be killed or seriously injured by an AV (automated vehicle). The victim will be a real person – their picture will appear in the media, inspiring considerable sympathy. In these circumstances, developers, regulators and politicians will need to make a case for AVs, producing figures showing an overall decline in injury rates.
The report also admits that: ‘This may not be an easy sell. Robust data will be needed.’
In 2018, the National Transport Commission (NTC), suggested that automated vehicles may need to be accompanied by an Automated Driving System Entity (ADSE) as part of a safety reassurance system. This would involve having a separate legal entity who would have to apply for authorisation for use and who could be liable for sanction in the case of any wrongdoing. This is not addressed in the new report.
However, in reinforcing the benefits of AVs, The Law Commission explains that there are 4.5 million motoring offences committed each year on Britain’s roads. With the introduction of AVs, these would become ‘regulatory matters.’ Instead, incidents would be resolved by a safety watchdog with the vehicle manufacturer.
In reinforcing the benefits of AVs and this shift in responsibilities, the report said: ‘Automated vehicles should be considerably more law-abiding, so much of this enforcement may no longer be necessary.’
It still stands, however, that a ‘user-in-charge’ will have to be ‘qualified and fit to drive’ under these new plans, and it will remain a crime to not have a licence or be unfit to drive through drink and drugs.
Transport Minister, Rachel Maclean, has spoken out to support this shift in responsibility. With several self-driving cars already being tested on UK roads with safety officers on board, she said: ‘The UK is leading the way on the regulation of this technology, supporting innovation and putting safety at the heart of everything we do.’
Would you feel comfortable handing responsibility over to your vehicle? Is this liability shift asking for trouble?
Tell us in the comments.